Monday, October 12, 2015

Inside the Business Übermensch Brain

Steve Tobak, Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur

My first clue that Steve Tobak would raise my hackles came in the preface, when he proclaims, with typical managerial humility: "Entrepreneurialism is broken, and I'm going to fix it." Not through the hard work of, say, creating entrepreneurial training programs, trade guilds, or other mutuality networks. No, he’ll fix it through this book. He basically makes that messianic proclamation, offers you this gospel, and demands your fidelity.

Reading management consultant Tobak’s first book, I kept recalling sociologist Duncan J. Watts. Employed by Microsoft Research, Watts discusses the common flaws in social reasoning: we use retrospective analysis on recent successes, thinking we’ll anticipate the next, but merely predict the past. We assume, despite all evidence, that large groups behave essentially like individuals. We treat the specific as universal. We “explain” things in ways that merely describe.

Throughout this book, Tobak repeatedly makes assertions that seem reasonable, if you’re unfamiliar with his topics. He claims Americans suffer a catastrophic lack of entrepreneurial drive, vulnerability to groupthink, and other problems. I have no qualm there. Matt Taibbi and Michael Lewis describe how financial operators imploded America’s economy with lemming-like thinking, and may do so again. If Tobak stopped there, I’d like him plenty.

However, as Tobak continues speaking, problems arise. We start noticing he builds long, complicated arguments on few, or no, cited sources. He lets anecdote substitute for evidence. His hasty generalizations and emotive language lump people into categories so broad, he’s plainly talking about people he’s never spoken to. Sometimes his language treads perilously close to fascism, as when pitting business leaders against “zombie bureaucrats” and the “devolved” masses.

Tobak, like men of means throughout time, believes today infinitely worse than his heyday. He doesn’t even disguise this attitude, writing: "We are becoming more entitled and less empathetic, more disassociated and less organized, more anarchistic and less civilized, more impulsive and less thoughtful, more distracted and less focused. And we are losing our ability to discern fact from fiction, truth from lies, and real insights from complete bullshit."

Maybe so, it’s plausible. But Tobak’s principal source? The movie Idiocracy. Funny how nobody watching that virtually straight-to-DVD mishmash of hipster self-superiority and sloppy biology ever thinks themselves on the story’s wrong side. Tobak then tumbles headlong into an evolutionary biology discursion both factually wrong (see Richard J. Perry or Gabor Maté, actual scientists) and borderline eugenicist in its disdain for difference.

I figured, hell, everyone biffs once. But Tobak proceeds directly into an encomium for Ayn Rand, objectivist philosopher and author of the novel Atlas Shrugged. Rich people love citing Rand to justify why their success proves their moral superiority. Rand divides humanity into wealthy übermenschen, and the great rabble, whom the wealthy rightly treat as interchangeable parts. Rand doesn’t support capitalism, so much as technocratic feudalism. Joshua Holland notes Rand’s iconic hero, John Galt, satisfies every DSM-IV diagnostic criterion for clinical psychopathy.

Though I kept reading, everything Tobak said sounded leaden. Again, as with Idiocracy, no Rand believer ever suspects they’ve backed the losing side. Using language pilfered from the Tea Party (what happened to not following, Steve?) Tobak calls today “a Randian nightmare,” an opinion not particularly shared by anybody outside Rand’s camp. Indeed, Rand’s sometime deputy, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, hand-wrote the policies which hastened the financial services collapse of 2008.

Therein lies Tobak’s greatest problem. He acknowledges surviving the 2000 dotcom bubble, and gives vague hat-tips to the 2008 financial services meltdown, but doesn’t let these experiences change him. He somehow occupies a fortress, unaffected by the lessons of the last fifteen years. He praises rich men (and they’re mostly indeed men), mocks anyone whose values can’t be measured fiscally, and promises to, somehow, elevate you to his wealthy Lehman-proof pantheon.

Clearly, like many management consultants, Tobak's greatest product is himself. Of twenty-four chapters in this book, eighteen feature a lengthy first-person anecdote in the first three pages. Most of those other six have one later, if you keep reading. Such self-infatuation conveys the unspoken message: be like me. To enjoy Steve Tobak-like success, we need only employ Steve Tobak-like strategies. Or, ahem, employ Steve Tobak.

I’ve checked Steve Tobak’s online presence in composing this review. I’ve observed how Tobak greets disagreement with name-calling, personal abuse, and moving the goalposts. He’ll probably answer me similarly, since he clearly believes he possesses unique insights, and doubters are mere idiocrats. I’ll accept such abuse. But I cannot permit such blatant, anachronistic mythmaking to go unchallenged in today’s economy.

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